Lawsuit coming, despite Sandy Springs' OK of Scientology church

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/December 15, 2009

"Absolutely," said attorney William Woodson Galloway, when asked if the Church of Scientology will pursue a religious liberty lawsuit following a vote Tuesday that limited the size of the church in Sandy Springs. "We are not happy with the result."

The result was a 3-3 vote by the City Council on Tuesday night that tried to find a common ground between outright denial of the rezoning of the office building at Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive and agreeing to the church's request to add a fourth floor to the building.

In the end, the tiebreaking vote went to Mayor Eva Galambos, who supported the staff and Planning Commission middle ground that allowed the church in, but without the additional space.

Council members Dianne Fries, Ashley Jenkins and Rusty Paul also voted in favor, while council members Tibby DeJulio, Doug MacGinnitie and Karen Meinzen McEnerny dissented.

"We can't make everybody happy," Galambos said. "We did the best we could with our zoning ordinances and all the recommendations before us."

That was cold comfort to the standing-room-only crowd that showed up to argue against the rezoning, based on concerns about parking and traffic.

Opposition was massive. More than 700 residents signed petitions against the rezoning, and 16 neighborhood associations formally opposed the move.

More than 200 residents showed up for Tuesday's meeting, filling City Hall chambers before packing into an adjacent overflow room. Latecomers were stuck standing in the back of the main room.

"This is not a suitable site for increased density and inadequate parking, for any use," said Jane Kelly of the High Point Civic Association, which represents 500 homeowners.

Galloway said the church disagreed that the problems existed but offered concessions about parking and occupancy anyway, trying to satisfy residents' concerns.

No other house of worship in the city operates under such resident demands, he said, referring before the vote to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"RLUIPA indicates you can't discriminate against churches, yet that is exactly what they are asking you to do," he said.

City Attorney Wendell Willard said the city cannot respond to a potential challenge to the vote until a lawsuit is filed.

Residents, too, may take legal action. A land-use attorney who consulted with opponents raised the issue Tuesday that even the three-floor church would not have enough on-site parking. Two city attorneys could not definitively address whether that was accurate Tuesday night.

"We are disappointed that the easement issue was not settled satisfactorily," Kelly said. "Everyone has to consider where we go from here."

The issue may mirror a similar case in Lilburn, which last month rejected a mosque's attempt to expand.

That case, too, is expected to be appealed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The attorney in that case is Doug Dillard, Galloway's partner in an Atlanta law firm.

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